Prospects of Norwich Phase 2 economic development plan could benefit from delay

Norwich Mayor Peter A. Nystrom’s proposed $8.5 million economic development bond package will not go to the voters this November and that is probably just as well.

During his 2017 campaign for mayor, an election that saw him returned to office after a one-term absence, Nystrom talked of his intent to build upon the $3.4 million downtown revitalization program that began during his first term in office. The city carried it out in partnership with the Norwich Community Development Corporation.

Voters approving that bonding in 2010 came as a pleasant surprise. It provided various incentives in the form of grants, low-interest loans and rent subsidies to help developers bring older buildings downtown up to code, filling them with tenants on upper floors and with street-level shops.

Apartments have been added because of the incentive program taxpayers backed. And among the more impressive commercial developments that resulted was Foundry 66, at 66 Franklin St., the former Norwich Bulletin offices. Its shared workspace has provided a location for various startup businesses, retailers and service agencies.

In seeking to build on that success, Nystrom proposed an ambitious $8.5 million program aimed at not only enticing further downtown redevelopment but expanding the incentives to revitalize surrounding neighborhoods and their small commercial centers.

But the measure failed to gain the necessary five City Council votes to get on the November ballot, with the council’s four Republicans, including the mayor, voting in favor and the three Democrats voting against the measure.

It would be unfair, however, to simply chalk this up to partisan politics. The Democrats, including in a guest commentary in The Day, made a compelling case that Nystrom and NCDC had failed to provide the information necessary to move the measure forward.

Most particularly, the administration did not do an adequate job of making the case for the success of the original $3.4 million economic development program. NCDC laid claim that the first bond generated $9.22 in “economic impact” for every dollar expended. But when Nystrom and an NCDC representative met with our editorial board, they did not do a good job explaining the logic behind those numbers and could not provide any statistics on job creation.

Also lacking was information on successes and failures (because surely not every business receiving help succeeded) and on lessons learned from the first go round.

With the measure held up for at least a year, the Nystrom administration has the time to build a better case for its phase two development plan. In concept, it appears to be a good idea; one that could indeed generate a significant return on city dollars invested. But from our perspective, the administration was not ready to make its case to the voters.

Nystrom pointed to the timing of a general election, with a race for governor, and an expected strong voter turnout. Next year features municipal elections, and lower turnout. But this is a municipal issue and those who do bother to vote in local elections tend to be well-informed voters.

Lastly, there is already a $2.7 million bond issue on the November ballot to upgrade the police communication system. This investment is critically important. Voters may have well put their money on that priority, to the detriment of the prospects of the development program.

Lick your wounds, Mayor Nystrom, and return to fight for your idea another day.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Pat Richardson, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, retired Day editor Lisa McGinley, Managing Editor Tim Cotter and Staff Writer Julia Bergman. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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